The philosopher Blessed John Duns Scotus lapsed into a coma in November 1308 and was reportedly buried alive. Sometime later he was found outside his coffin with torn and bloody hands.
The centuries that followed tell a story of mania and ingenuity, as a series of zany devices were constructed with the sole purpose of alerting the living that the dead had risen. They are called safety coffins and despite the vast resources gone into perfecting their functionality over the past several centuries, there is not one shred of evidence to say that someone has ever been saved by one.
In the early 1790s, the Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick ordered what may have been the world’s first safety coffin. It had a window to let light in, a tube that delivered fresh air and a lid that clamped shut with a lock instead of nails. In the pocket of a shroud to be worn by Brunswick were two keys, one for the lid, the other for the tomb door.
In 1798, P.G. Pessler, a German priest, suggested that all coffins have a cord connected to church bells. Anyone accidentally buried alive would be able to sound their own alarm by tugging the cord and ringing the bells. A colleague of Pessler’s named Pastor Beck advocated a system with a small trumpet-like tube. Each day, local priests would make the rounds of the cemetery and get an accurate check on corpses-come-back-to-life by determining the degree of putrefaction coming from the tube.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1822, Dr. Adolf Gutsmuth was buried alive numerous times to demonstrate his own safety coffin design. He stayed underground for several hours and ate a meal of soup, sausages and beer, delivered to him through the coffin’s feeding tube. Later that decade the portable death chamber was developed in Germany. In the spirit of a glass-bottom boat, the device allowed people to peek below the earth and examine the contents of the grave beneath. A small chamber with a bell and a window was constructed over an empty grave, in which the rotting corpse sat. A watchman would ring a bell if he noticed signs of life. If after a suitable time there were none, a door in the floor was opened and the body would drop into the grave.
Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger revealed a system in 1829 that attached strings to a corpse’s hands, head and feet. These in turn were attached to an above-ground bell, intended to alert the cemetery night watchman. The bell was encased in a waterproof housing that prevented accidental ringing or rain from dripping down the tube and into the coffin. Netting prevented insects from entering the coffin. If the bell was actually rung the night watchman had to immediately insert a second tube into the coffin that would pump air down to the now undead, enabling them to breathe until their casket could be dug up.
One problem associated with safety coffins that involved cords was that a decaying corpse naturally swells or shift positions, causing tension on the cords that can produce false positive rings. In 1868, Franz Vestor attempted to overcome this problem with an invention he termed the burial case. It featured a tube through which the deceased’s face could be viewed, thereby allowing passersby to determine if a stirring body was alive or just rotting. An alive person could either ring a bell for help or ascend to the surface via a ladder.
In 1897, Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, a chamberlain to the Tsar of Russia, patented a safety coffin he called Le Karnice. He demonstrated it at the Sorbonne. If the device detected coffin movement a tube was opened to supply air while simultaneously a flag was raised and a bell was rung. The design never caught on, in a demonstration in which one of Karnice-Karnicki’s assistants was buried alive, the system failed. Fortunately, the breathing tube saved his life, but Karnice-Karnicki’s reputation was ruined.